Reflections On: Educational Equity – Belonging, Belief, Labels and Cultural Bias

Some reflections on SAfE’s AGM 2024 discussion

At SAfE’s AGM last week we had a rich and thought-provoking discussion on educational equity. How we can ensure that all of our children and young people achieve, thrive, belong and live well regardless of any barriers to learning that they might face.


At the heart of our discussions was the importance of ensuring that all our children really belong. Children and young people’s sense of school belonging is shaped by what they bring to it – their histories, their day-to-day lived realities – as well as schools’ practices and expectations.

Belonging is that sense of being somewhere you can be confident that you will fit in and be safe in your identity: a feeling of being at home in a place.”

Prof Kathy Riley, IOE

The importance of forging deep authentic, non-judgemental relationships with pupils and parents recognising and celebrating each one’s individuality, multiple talents, backgrounds and histories is key. Across our conversations we heard from a Headteacher talking about the work they did with young carers and another about their work with traveller communities to build trust, understanding and belonging.

“That children and families are socially included and feel that they belong. In the classroom, unstructured times, in extracurricular activities, residentials and visits. In sports teams, representing school and student leadership opportunities.”

Unity Research School


Pupils that face barriers to learning outside school deserve more of our attention in the classroom. Equity is about providing additional support to pupils who need it most whilst believing that all pupils can flourish in the classroom. Equity is not the same as equality which is about ensuring all children and young people receive the same resources.

As one Headteacher challenged, “How frequently do we allow our children that are struggling to be consistently taught by the best teachers?”.  And another commented that we need to build in more time and more support for children that face barriers.

“We need to remove the deficit discourse around disadvantage and its impact on learning and participation in school life. Disadvantaged pupils and their families are not a problem to be solved. They are our school community and held in high regard.”

Marc Rowland

Children will only thrive if all staff believe that all pupils can make the necessary progress to attain well and they focus on what pupils can do rather than what they can’t. That there is a collective responsibility for all pupils and families across the school community celebrating and welcoming all backgrounds and cultures.


Labels can limit our mindset. We cannot ignore the system-wide inequalities that we know impede learning but barriers to learning are multidimensional, interacting and cumulative. Labels whether positive or negative can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. For our pupils facing barriers, labels such as ‘disadvantaged’, ‘SEND’ or EAL can cause pupils to feel excluded or judged. Labelling can perpetuate stereotypes, lower expectations and treat pupils as part of a group rather than an individual.

(Unconscious) Cultural Bias

We are all prone to a plethora of unconscious biases. One CEO commented that a challenge was that most teachers come from ‘middle-class’ backgrounds. Do we understand what it is like to be an underserved learner? Our policy-makers are predominately middle class. Educational success is consistently defined as ‘escaping’ from existing culture, background and even geographic area to prosper in a middle-class system rather than welcoming those from all backgrounds.

Do we actively question our assumptions or our stereotypes? Do we actively have the same expectations and are prepared to assess (not assume) and mitigate issues that are impacting on pupils’ learning and opportunity? Or as one Headteacher said “do we unwittingly have an excuse-making culture”.

Do we equally reflect and celebrate the full cultural diversity of all our pupils to remove classroom bias and barriers.

“We need a rethink; we need to find out what every child can offer, what we need to change, and how we can work together.”

Lee Eliott Major

Inequity in education isn’t new but we need a renewed focus to challenge it as we move through this decade. Do we dare to start a new conversation about educational equity in Surrey? I felt strongly from our leaders at the AGM that the answer is yes.

At SAfE we are committed to placing Educational Equity at the heart of all our work and will work to continue to provide support for schools through our meetings with you, our professional learning, resources and case studies of good practice.

We would love to hear from you about what you would value from SAfE.

“Our new conversation must be about taking responsibility and owning a shared moral purpose to provide the opportunities and resources needed for all children and their families to achieve on their own terms.”

Sonia Blandford

Recommended Reading

  • Belonging – the Ancient Code of Togetherness by Owen Eastwood
  • Equity in Education: Levelling: the playing field of learning by Lee Elliot Major and Emily Briant
  • Social Mobility: Chance or Choice by Sonia Blandford


Maria Dawes, CEO for SAfE & Surrey Teaching School Network

Schools Alliance For Excellence (SAfE) supports inclusivity and excellence

Recent News